Miami: History

Early Settlement Attempts Create Conflict

South Florida was settled more than four thousand years ago by primitive people who had established a thriving culture by the time Spanish explorers led by Ponce de Leon arrived in 1513. The principal native tribe in the region that is now Miami-Dade County was the Calusa (renamed Tequesta by de Leon), whose members built villages along the Miami River. The name Miami comes from the Calusa word "Mayami," meaning "Big Water." Tequesta—or Chequescha—their village on the north bank of the river, became the site of the future city of Miami.

Spanish conquistadors, attracted by the mild climate, abundant food sources, and fresh water supply—and by tales of gold and other riches—made repeated attempts to colonize the Miami region during the early sixteenth century but were met with hostility from the Calusas. Nevertheless, by the early 1700s, less than two hundred years after the arrival of the Spanish, most of the native population of south Florida had disappeared. European diseases like smallpox had severely reduced their numbers, as did inter-tribal wars. The few Calusas who remained were threatened by invading Creek and Seminole Indians, and in 1711 many fled to Havana, Cuba.

Spain, never really successful in settling the Miami region, supported France against the British during the French and Indian War, and as a result lost Florida to the victorious British in 1763. In 1783, after the American Revolution, Florida briefly reverted to Spanish possession, but in 1821 Spain ceded Florida to the United States for $5 million. Over the next two decades, settlers moving into the Biscayne Bay area encountered conflict with the Seminoles living there. In 1836, as part of an effort to quell the angry Seminoles, the U.S. Army took over Fort Dallas—originally a naval post at the mouth of the Miami River. In 1842, after numerous skirmishes, the remaining Seminoles were driven into the Everglades swamp, a region so unfit for human habitation that the government did not challenge their occupation of it. Seven years later a permanent structure was built at Fort Dallas from which the army could monitor the Seminoles.

While other outposts in Florida flourished after the final Seminole conflict, Miami and Dade County suffered. Farming had become impossible and settlers drifted to other locales. By 1860 the name Miami no longer appeared in public records. The Civil War barely touched the few people who lived in the isolated Miami River settlement; in fact, it was assumed by those in prosperous north Florida towns that the southern region was uninhabited. Although stragglers, deserters, and freed slaves passed through Miami after the war, few settled there.

The City Becomes a Cosmopolitan Mecca

In the 1870s investors and developers from the midwest moved into the area, claiming old titles and buying land. Among them was Julia Tuttle, the wealthy widow of a Cleveland businessman, who enjoyed life in Miami and saw potential for a resort community there. She persuaded Henry Flagler to extend his Florida East Coast Railroad into the wilderness beyond Palm Beach. On April 15, 1896, Flagler brought his railroad into Miami and also began to develop the town, which was incorporated in 1896. Other entrepreneurs followed, and Miami grew from a village with a population of 343 people to a flourishing resort. Miami Beach was founded in 1915.

After World War I, improved highways gave greater access from the north and triggered an unprecedented building boom. In 1920 the city's population was 30,000 people; by 1925 real estate speculation swelled the population to 200,000 people. A year later the boom had collapsed, but it had laid the basis for future development in office buildings, hotels, housing, and a network of streets and roads. A hurricane in 1926 killed 243 people and caused damage estimated at $1.4 billion in 1990 dollars. Miami's phenomenal growth slowed.

World War II brought a second boom to Miami. Soldiers replaced tourists, and after the war servicemen who had trained in the city returned to make their homes there. This second boom has continued without significant interruption to the present. It was given impetus in the 1960s with the migration of more than 178,000 refugees from Communist Cuba. The Cuban migration transformed Miami into an international city, strengthening existing ties with the Caribbean and South America. Today the city is bilingual; Spanish-speaking employees work at most businesses, and downtown shops post signs in both English and Spanish. Still, racial tensions persisted. For example, an incident of alleged police brutality toward an African American caused major rioting in 1980. And African Americans staged a tourism boycott resulting from the snubbing by county commissioners of former South African President Nelson Mandela during his visit to Miami in 1990.

End of Century Sees Political Turmoil, Reform Efforts

Capitalizing on its multinational character, Miami moved during the 1980s and 1990s into the forefront of world commerce and finance. Hundreds of thousands of European visitors discovered Miami Beach, popularizing the Art Deco hotels and adding to the city's cosmopolitan flair. But in the wake of racial and ethnic tensions, some highly publicized murders of foreign tourists, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992, at least 100,000 non-Hispanic whites fled the Greater Miami area between 1990 and 1996, leaving a city that was the only large U.S. city with a Hispanic majority.

The city struggled in the late twentieth century to balance the needs of its mostly poor citizens with the need for business development. In spite of its glamorous image, Miami was the nation's fourth poorest city. In 1997, faced with a $68 million budget shortfall, Miami became the first city in Florida to have an oversight board appointed by the state. City voters rejected a plan to dissolve Miami as separate entity and merge it with the county, though county voters approved to change the name of Dade County to Miami-Dade County. This name change did little to help Miami, whose problems had become more than financial. The 2000 incident involving Elian Gonzalez, a five-year-old Cuban boy who survived a shipwreck to arrive in the United States only to be returned to Cuba by the U.S. government, deepened ethnic tensions between Miami's Cuban and non-Cuban population. By the turn of the century, corruption in the city government and a number of controversial police shootings brought about scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice.

A Radical with a Business Vision

Desperate for a positive change, disenchanted voters shook up Miami's government by electing Manuel A. Diaz as mayor in 2001. Diaz, a lawyer who had never held elected office, immediately and radically restructured the government. Modeling it on a private-sector organization, he eliminated some departments and consolidated others, and incorporated a vertical structure consisting of such positions as a Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer. Business processes were rewritten at each employee and government level, and a new emphasis was placed on accountability, training, and timely service to citizens. A number of programs were developed and implemented to boost the local economy and improve the quality of life for Miami's residents and visitors. By 2004, only three years after the city was nearly bankrupt and its bonds were junk grade, Wall Street gave its bonds an A+ rating, the highest in Miami's history. Diaz's remarkable results in such a short time earned him the Urban Innovator of the Year Award by the Manhattan Institute.

Historical Information: Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami, FL 33130; telephone (305)375-1492; email